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Don Trent Jacobs
Center for Excellence in Education
Northern Arizona University

Presented at the Modern Native American 2001 Conference At Northern Arizona University August 2001


A current irony in education might benefit American Indians as well as the American population as a whole: While Indian reservation schools are being pulled into European based approaches to education, progressive western educators are calling for widespread implementation of American Indian learning theories. At the heart of this irony is America's "character education" movement. This paper proposes that a return to ways of teaching virtues that have been practiced by most American Indian tribes can be a solution to both of the above problems.

Unfortunately, many Indian reservation schools are copying the schooling strategies of the dominant culture. Such strategies create education institutions that continue to reflect divisive structures and policies that stifle deep, meaningful and satisfying learning experiences. In such schools, teaching, learning and administrating are rooted in assumptions that prevent authentic exploration. Success is ultimately considered only in terms of information feedback, short-term compliance with authority and materialistic potential.

Ironically, many contemporary western educators are calling for new educational strategies that reflect the American Indian understanding of teaching and learning. For example, Patrick Slattery in Curriculum Development for the Post Modern Era says," "Curriculum development in the postmodern era also includes attention to the wisdom embedded in Native American spirituality, for it is in the very sacred land of the native people that American education now finds its home." (Slattery, 1988, p.79) The authors of a widely used text for youth at risk state, "Native American philosophies of child management represent what is perhaps the most effective system of positive discipline ever developed. These approaches emerged from cultures where the central purpose of life was the education and empowerment of children." (Brendtro, Brokenleg and Van Bockern, 1996, p.35) Best selling educational author, Parker Palmer, says that the deep knowing of the American Indian people brings to education one of the most neglected resources of our continent. (Jacobs, 2001) Many other notable individuals, such as the Dalai Lama, Noam Chomsky and Vine Deloria have all endorsed the wisdom in American Indian approaches to holistic education. (Jacobs, 2001)

Although a constructivist foundation for learning is common to most indigenous theories, it is probably a worldview that emphasizes spirituality and character that is at the root of this call for American Indian pedagogy. American Indian assumptions about learning tend to overshadow more fear-based, incomplete and shortsighted priorities with a longer-term emphasis on character, cooperation, relationships, reciprocity and the environment. A model for this balanced approach to learning existed successfully for thousands of years in indigenous cultures. Although dormant amidst westernized reservation schools, its roots remain alive within the hearts and minds of America's first peoples. Now, in the light of the widespread interest in "character education," there may be the ultimate opportunity for American Indian people to share their wisdom in a way that will help everyone, especially the reservation student.

Character education programs are enjoying a well-deserved resurgence the United States. Implementation of these programs, however, is usually more about good behavior, indoctrination, religion or classroom management than about the deep, critical reflections and systemic changes that lead to authentic good character. Virtue awareness or discussions in many well-intended schools is relegated to a one-day-a-week, "virtue of the month" status. "Bonus Bucks" are offered as motivation and standardized tests are used to measure outcomes. In his article, for Phi Delta Kappan, "How Not to Teach Character Education," (February, 1997), Alfie Kohn offers an excellent critique of the current character education phenomenon. In it he identifies a variety of problematic issues. In the following paragraphs, I paraphrase his allegations, and then I follow each with a "solution" that might come from enfolding the American Indian perspective into the teaching philosophy and institutional culture of each school and/or classroom. (Kohn's ideas are in italics.)

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The American Indian world view sees all religious beliefs as divine metaphors for a common truth that allow different people to concentrate on spiritual matters in different ways. "Spiritual," however, is more about a concern for the great questions, whereas many western religions are about specific answers one must accept for eternal salvation. Whereas the native understanding thinks that sacredness and mystery go together and thus embrace an open-minded stance to orthodoxy. Considering that several states now require schools to post the Ten Commandments in classrooms as a way to implement character education, it might be an interesting exercise to contrast the assumptions and language of these famous mandates with some typical guidelines Indian ways of living that follow:

1. Treat the Earth and all that dwell thereon with respect

2. Remain close to the Great spirit

3. Show great respect for your fellow beings.

4. work together for the benefit of all.

5. Give assistance and kindness wherever needed.

6. Do what you know in your heart and mind to be right.

7. Look after the well-being of mind and body.

8. Dedicate a share of your efforts to the greater good.

9. Be truthful and honest at all times.

10. Take responsibility for your actions.

Alfie Kohn concludes his article by saying there is a "need to reevaluate the practices and premises of contemporary character education. To realize a humane and progressive vision for children's development, we may need to look elsewhere." (Kohn, p.14) I suggest we need not look any further than to the first Americans that are our neighbors throughout this land, and that we do it before it is too late. I realize there are some risks for native people who want to embark on this path, but I believe benefits for all of us are worth the risks.


References Brendtro, Larry K. Martin Brokenleg; and Steve Van Bockern, Reclaiming Youth at Risk. Bloomington, Ind: National Educational Service, 1990.

Clifton, James. The Invented Indian: Cultural Fictions and Government Policies. New Brunswick, N.J.:Transaction Books, 1990.

Jacobs, Don Trent and Jessica Jacobs-Spencer, Teaching Virtues, Scarecrow Education, Landham, MD.: 2001

Jacobs, Don Trent, Primal Awareness, Rochester, VT:Inner Traditions International, 1998.

Keely, Lawrence, War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Kohn, Alfie. "How Not to Teach Values: A Critical Look at Character Education" Phi Delta Kappan,,

1997 Shepard, Krech, The Ecological Indian, Myth and History, W.W. Norton and Co., 2000.

Slattery, Patrick. Curriculum Development in the Postmodern Era. New York: Garland Publishing, 1995

. Trevor-Roper, Hugh. The Rise of Christian Europe. London: Thames and Hudson, 1965.

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